Down the Garden Path: Guest columnist series – Saving, storing, and swapping seeds

Buy seeds early and read the instructions carefully because some can be planted immediately while others may need special handling.

At some point, every gardener has had leftover seeds after sowing the vegetable garden or flowerbed. In addition, saving vegetable and flower seeds is one way to save some money each year or use that money to feed your gardening habit in other areas.

Saving and storing seeds

Saving “store bought” seed is the easiest thing to do. Gardeners typically fold the seed packet over, paperclip or rubber band the seed packets together, and put them somewhere until next year. Where you store them can make all the difference in future success. The kitchen junk drawer or garden shed are not good spots.

Seeds are alive while stored so the better the storage environment, the higher survival rate you will get. The refrigerator is going to be the best place. Stored in their original seed packets or a sandwich bag, seeds should go into a tight sealing container. Tradition suggests a wide-mouth canning jar with ring and a new lid. If you have a lot of seeds to save, maybe two canning jars – one for veggies, one for flowers. The canning jar is air tight and slows seed respiration. The temperature in the fridge also slows respiration. This way the seed uses up less energy and saves the rest for germination.

A good guideline to remember is the larger the seed, the longer it can be stored. This may help guide you as to what kinds of seed to save. Snap beans are relatively easy while lettuce seed is not.

Swapping seeds

If seed swapping is part of your gardening efforts, storing leftover hybrid seed from the packet will guarantee what you share will be true to the variety. Saving seed from the hybrid plant, on the other hand, will not give you that same hybrid again. Open pollinated and heirloom plants do come true to type. With open pollinated plants, the DNA from the female flower dominates. As long as heirloom plants do not get cross-pollinated from a hybrid, they too will come true to type. So, some caution is in order when you receive your swapped seeds. They may be exactly what you wanted or maybe not, depending on how isolated they were during flower pollination.

Testing seeds

Before it is time to sow those saved or swapped seeds in the garden or indoors to grow out as a transplant, a germination test is helpful. No matter how well seeds are stored, there will be a reduction in the germination rate. If you look at the seed packet, you will find the germination rate and what year the seed was grown for.

Typically, for every year of storage there can be a 10% reduction in germination. As mentioned already, very small seeds do not last in storage past one year, and if the seed does, then the germination rate will be substantially reduced. Nothing worse than sowing the garden row or seed flat and having a complete failure.

To test, place a sample of seed between moist paper towels, and place that inside a small plastic bag to retain the moisture. Remember, the number of days needed to germinate is on the seed packet. For example, if you have 100 seeds and you test 10, and eight of them actually sprout, you have an 80% germination rate with the remaining seeds.

Get free seeds at Jan. 28 event

Get a jump on the growing season with free seeds at the sixth annual Kendall County Master Gardener Community Seed Swap from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Jan. 28, at U of I Extension office in Kendall County, 7775B Route 47, Yorkville. Seed Swap participants can choose from a wide variety of free vegetable, flower, herb, and native plant seeds. No need to bring seeds to participate. Plus, Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists will be available to answer questions. Learn more at